Thursday, 28 November 2013

Remembering from the outside?

John Sutton and Chris McCarroll
Currently I am a PhD student under the supervision of John Sutton at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, Macquarie University.

One of John’s research projects, and the topic of my PhD, is a philosophical investigation of visual perspective in autobiographical memory, and we recently gave a talk on this subject at the Philosophy of Memory Workshop in Adelaide.

When remembering past experiences, one can remember the event from one’s original point of view, maintaining the same visual perspective on the scene with which one experienced the event. Many people, however, report sometimes seeing themselves in the remembered scene, from an external or third-person perspective. Following Nigro and Neisser’s seminal paper these are known within psychology as memories from field and observer perspectives respectively.
Despite a burgeoning number of empirical investigations within cognitive psychology on the topic of visual perspective in memory (see, for example, Rice and Rubin 2009), some philosophers make no room for observer perspectives within their accounts of memory, and others explicitly deny that observer perspectives could be genuine memories. In our talk John and I explored some challenges to that view by looking at how a number of philosophers treat, or fail to treat, the observer perspective.

We argued for a pluralist account of perspectives: one that acknowledges that there are various perspectives in distinct modalities and that these distinct perspectives can come apart. Within the domain of autobiographical remembering distinct perspectives upon one’s past are available in a number of modalities: visuospatial, kinaesthetic/embodied, emotional, evaluative, and epistemic, for example. We appealed to the philosophy of the late Peter Goldie to help explain how these various perspectives on the past may fuse or come apart.

One reason some deny that genuine memories can involve observer perspectives relates to, we suggest, a failure to recognise this multiplicity of perspectives, and consequently collapsing all perspective modalities (within the domain of memory) into the visual modality. This results in a view in which the self is represented in the same way in field perspective memories and the original perceptual experience, yet in a fundamentally distinct way in the observer perspective. We argued that this is not in fact the case. By acknowledging the multiple perspectives in memory, we proposed that the self is represented in both field and observer perspectives in essentially the same manner. When one sees oneself in the memory there is no question as to who it is, one just implicitly knows that it is oneself in the remembered scene. The self in both field and observer perspectives is represented in an ‘identification-free’ way―there is a non-inferential immediacy of self in both cases.

We argued further that at the heart of many of the instances in which observer perspectives are denied or neglected lies an overly preservationist conception of memory. Such a conception holds that memory must preserve the same content as the original perceptual experience, such that the visual content of the present memory must be precisely the same as the content of the past perception. We argued instead that autobiographical memory is a constructive process in which perspective is malleable, and open to the context of retrieval.

It is important to note, nonetheless, that such construction and malleability in autobiographical remembering does not necessarily entail inaccuracy or invention. We argued that even though memory is constructive, the relation between the present memory and the past experience must involve, firstly, sufficient similarity of content, and secondly, appropriate causal connections. We hold that observer perspectives can meet these criteria. Memories can be constructed, worked over, and infused with what one now knows, thinks, or feels, for example, but this is true just as much for the field perspective as the observer perspective.

John and I received many helpful and insightful questions and comments on the talk, leaving us with plenty to ponder for future work on visual perspective in memory, and we would like to thank all those involved in the workshop, especially Jordi Fernandez and Suzy Bliss.

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